A computer specialist sits in front of a PC. Using a programming language, he writes a code that the machine will understand later on.
He has created a software application. If he delivers it with what he wrote the code is open and the software is free, if it meets all the requirements.
In this case, there’s the possibility that other computer experts can see and change that code. Thus, they would be capable of improving the application or adapt it to specific contexts.
The most widespread in the world, however, continues to be the proprietary code, the philosophy with which the trans-national software companies work. It has been stated that these applications have back doors, an efficient way for information to fly from computers connected to a network.
"For security reasons and above all, for technological sovereignty, we’re encouraging the use of free software applications, first of all in entities and organizations of the State’s central administration", points out Boris Moreno, Deputy Minister for Computing and Communications.
For some years now, Cuba has had an Executive Group for Software Migration. It’s made up by the Legal Group, in charge of establishing the regulations supporting the process; the Training Group, to train people for the change; and the Technical Group, which has prepared a migration guide book, a reference to arrange the process and identify the applications that will replace those in proprietary code.
"We’ve been trying to boost migration for a long time. It’s a complicated task, because it implies a change of habits and traditions, and we haven’t advanced at the speed we would have liked", highlights the Deputy Minister.
In terms of the use of applications and platforms of open code, the General Customs of the Republic (AGR) is a reference for us, he adds. "As is always the case, the role played by the main executives is very important. In the case of the Customs, the entity’s top administration understands very well the role computing plays to make working processes in organizations more efficient and safe."
AN EXPERIENCE IN THE OPEN CODE MIGRATION
Halfway through 1999, Carlos Anasagasti was given what seemed to be a "mission impossible". At the time, he was already the head of the Automation Center for the Customs’ Computing Department. The idea "of investigating what Linux was", ended by being a migration –difficult but fortunate- to open code.
In addition to the technological independence inherent in the adequate implementation of the free software, not subject to the ups and downs of big transnationals, the AGR had more reasons to choose.
We conducted a study and in 2002, points out Anasagasti, with the amount of computers we had, we could have saved over 300,000 dollars in license, if we had Linux installed. "We said to ourselves that if we continued growing, as we thought we would, at some point we would spend huge amounts and we could save them."
A year later, a countless number of experiences in other parts of the world had been reviewed: Brazil, Germany, the Spanish province of Extremadura... None of them, however, paved the way. "We were almost alone, recalls Anasagasti. Nobody gave us the details on how to do things."
Others came to their help. Specialists from Infomed (the Health Ministry’s web site) and some visionaries immersed in the wonders of free software, when it was still completely unknown, joined forces in this effort. That’s how the institution’s computing experts began to be trained. They were introduced to the world of the open code and parallel to this the migration of servers began -the less visible part for non-specialized users.
The most difficult task was still to come. Migration at work stations "affect the largest number of people", points out the executive; people not wanting to change, people that were used to the other software. (...) We approved a training plan and in 2006 we had already defined what to teach people about Linux."
BEYOND TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES
The head of the AGR’s Automation Group in eastern Santiago de Cuba province, David Fernández, told us that due to the diversity of equipment and the existing applications it was impossible to use a single distribution for all computers. There was a moment in which not all computers worked with Linux (some worked better with a version of Windows), but they did have the navigator, the electronic mail and the office computer system applications in open code that they could use when that operating system was installed.
"The day they changed the computer, users would have to learn the details of the operating system, but they already knew how to use the rest", underlines Anasagasti. "That made things easier."
With the so-called virtualization, the fact that users needed some applications in owner software stopped being an obstacle to install free operating systems in work stations. The mechanism, well known in the world, consists of creating several virtual computers –versions of Windows, for example- in a server; each of them will make the execution of programs from the computer connected to that network, possible.
There was resistance to change, but the strategy helped them. At present 94%, of the over 1,000 users, work with Linux. The Customs Single System, AGR’s main application, runs on free software. They still have to migrate the data base, since the one they have in proprietary software is a lot better compared to their equivalents in open code, but they’re working on it.
The times when Linux versions were difficult and strange aliens have been left way behind. Today, they have Ubuntu for users at work stations, a very friendly distribution of Linux and similar to Windows; and Debian, "a very powerful project", is destined for the servers.
Meanwhile, the promoters of this work recall they have had strong obstacles and that they always needed a good technical medium capable of correcting difficulties immediately. The experiences, for sure, will be a challenge for many entities. The philosophy of solidarity and cooperation of free software accompanied by organization, flexibility and lucidity to finally consolidate its course, is urgent.
In "free software", the word "free", which in English means both "freedom" and "without payment", is probably the cause of an old controversy, hence the myth that "free software" obligatorily implies without payment.
Richard Stallman, very well known in that community and its main promoter, refers to "free" in its sense of "freedom" and points out that there are four essential requirements for an application to be considered free: freedom to execute the program anywhere, with any purpose and forever; freedom to study it and adapt it to specific needs; freedom to redistribute it, so cooperation with other users is possible; and freedom to improve the program and publish its improvements.